Handel in Rome: Nardus Williams and the Dunedin Consort at Wigmore Hall

London audiences seem to have been frequently invited to travel back to Handel’s Rome of late.  After In the Realms of Sorrow at Stone Nest during the London Handel Festival at the start of March – a programme which I described as a ‘high-octane rhapsody on love distressing, deluded and denied’ – the month closed at Wigmore Hall March with this less flamboyantly theatrical but no less musically discerning account by the Dunedin Consort of some of the cantatas and secular oratorios that Handel composed during his three-year sojourn in the papal city. 

Soprano Nardus Williams was the connecting thread between the two performances.  Having conveyed the full gamut of the mental anguish of Tasso’s bereft bewitcher in Armida abbandonata from the Stone Nest gallery, under the Wigmore Hall cupola Williams stepped into the shoes of despairing Hero – worn at the LHF by Soraya Mafi – as she laments her beloved Leander’s death by drowning before joining him at the bottom of the deep, in Handel’s 1707 cantata Ero e Leandro.

This was a beautiful, affecting account.  In the first aria, Handel pares down the instrumentation to convey Hero’s utter devastation and the contrast between the silky arpeggios of Matthew Truscott’s solo violin and the darker basso continuo colours evoked the extent Ero’s anguish.  In the recitatives Williams sang with a freedom and flexibility which matched Handel’s expressive harmonic explorations.  The crystalline purity of the vocal line was almost otherworldly at times, but it was certainly not without nuance or pathos.  The changing moods, as aria and recitative alternated, were persuasively dramatised without undue rhetoric or gesture.  Williams shaped the final aria brilliantly, negotiating the short fragmentary phrases perceptively, and then, in the closing accompanied recitative when Hero pledges to join her beloved in deep waters, found an astonishing introspective profundity, her singing delicate but deliberate (and matched by some fine playing by Alison McGillvray (cello), Rafael Arjona Ruz (theorbo) and Stephen Farr (organ)) as she spun a vocal thread of immensely poised sadness.

In ‘Tu del ciel ministro eletto’ (Heaven’s chosen minister), the final aria from the secular oratorio Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (1707), Bellezza finally eschews “disloyal desire” and “vain pleasures” and, through her “guardian angel” offers her reborn heart to God.  As Truscott’s mellifluous bow strokes entwined with Williams’ floating melody, above the steady pulsing of the strings – Time ticking calmly onwards – it did seem as if the music was ascending to the heavens, and the well-judged ornamentation of the da capo served to enhance the sincerity and spirituality of Bellazza’s moral revelation.

The concert had opened with the Overture to Admeto, re di Tessaglia (1726), the stately weight of the opening movement followed by nimble flight, eloquently shaped counterpoint and characterful oboe playing (Alexandra Bellam and Frances Norbury).  The second half of the programme was structured in the same way, the Concerto Grosso in G minor Op.6 No.6 (1739) serving as a sort of overture to the cantata Tra le fiamme (Among the Flames), the text of which by Cardinal Pamphili (also the librettist of Ero e Leandro) tells another tale of misadventure in recounting Icarus ill-fated flight. 

The Concerto was the epitome of informed, instinctive and insightful ensemble playing.  Pace and dynamics were apt, cadences shapely, counterpoint well-defined, phrasing nuanced.  The Musette was discerningly structured, the penultimate Allegro – another super solo from Truscott – fairly fizzed, while the closing movement had an air of elegance and polish.

Williams’ soprano bloomed fulsomely in the cantata as the deeply expressive interplay of Alison McGillivray’s viola da gamba and two recorders (Norbury and Lászió Rózsa) conjured the darting of a thousand butterflies that “fall into the fire” and the unfurling of Icarus’ wings as he “played game with the breezes”.  The instrumental virtuosity was effortless, and Williams whipped through the runs and quick sequence of trills too.  “Voli per l’aria” (Fly through the air) begins the playfully spirited third aria, and fly the coloratura did, wrapped around by stratospheric recorder weavings.

McGillivray’s artistry was even more impressive in the slow, pulsing ‘Per me già di morire’, Mary’s lament from La Resurrezione.  The cantata was first performed on Easter Sunday in 1708, concluding an elaborate series of Lenten concerts sponsored by Prince Francesco Maria Ruspoli, with the soprano Margherita Durastanti singing the role of Maddalena (prompting complaints from the Church authorities, who demanded that she be replaced by a castrato when the oratorio was repeated on Easter Monday).  Handel’s inventive instrumental colours were brilliantly exploited – alongside the solo violin Handel calls for ‘tutti flauti e un oboe sordo’ – and the directness of Williams’ vocal expression was compelling as she sung not of sorrow but of a hope that seemed belied by the instruments’ drooping chromaticism. 

Aminta’s aria ‘Se vago rio fra sassi’ from another of Handel’s Roman cantatas, Aminta e Fillide, made for a lilting end to a lovely evening.

Claire Seymour

Nardus Williams (soprano), Dunedin Consort

George Frideric Handel: Overture, Admeto, re di Tessaglia HWV22, Ero e Leandro HWV150, ‘Tu del ciel ministro eletto’ (Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno), Concerto Grosso in G minor Op.6 No.6 HWV324, Tra le fiamme HWV170, Per me già di morire (La Resurrezione HWV47)

Wigmore Hall, London; Thursday 30th March 2023.

ABOVE: Nardus Williams (c) Bertie Watson